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Meet the weekend organic farmers

Professionals are taking out time from their busy working lives to grow vegetables, lentils and native paddy for personal consumption or to sell in order to promote going organic

Chennai’s Parthasarathy V.M., who took up farming as a vocation, sells some of his produce at a makeshift store in his house and at farmer markets.
Chennai’s Parthasarathy V.M., who took up farming as a vocation, sells some of his produce at a makeshift store in his house and at farmer markets.

On weekdays, Shashi Chandra, a technical architect at Campus Management Corp., leaves for work by 8:30am. On weekends, he leaves home two hours prior to reach his other workplace: a rented farm in the outskirts of Bengaluru.

For the past two years, Chandra, 38, has been growing vegetables in his 600 sq. ft plot, which is some 35km away from home. Since 2017, he has produced nearly 150kg of vegetables, including brinjal, carrot, cluster beans, beetroot and radish.

Like Chandra, Srinivasan Deenadayalan, 28, who works as network engineer in Chennai’s Reliance IT Park, has been a weekend farmer for the past two years. He tills a 3.5 acre plot, owned by an acquaintance outside Chennai, and grows native varieties of paddy.

Chandra and Deenadayalan, who had no prior farming experience, are part of a small group of organic urban farmers who juggle career and passion. Some own farms, some rent and some borrow from friends. Startups like Farmizen are also helping people rent and manage farms for them. Founder Shameek Chakravarty says there is a growing interest in farming, but adds that only 20% of his customers visit the farm regularly. “The rest instruct through the app what they want to grow in the farm and collect the produce when it’s ready."

Getting food conscious

Bengaluru’s Walmart architect Santosh Basavaraju, 41, likes to spend free time at his farm, whenever possible. Curiosity over sterile seeds in a fruit led Basavaraju to take up farming about three years ago. “In school, we had been taught that if you sow a seed, it will germinate and grow. So I was surprised that these seeds wouldn’t germinate," he says. It was then he started researching on seed engineering, which led him to zero-budget natural farming and attending a five-day course on the subject.

As he couldn’t find any land near Bengaluru in his budget to implement what he had learnt, he settled for his family’s 10-acre farm in a village in Chamarajanagara district. He grows lentils, millets and sunflower. By adopting a multi-crop method, Basavaraju claims, he has been able to improve his land’s groundwater level. He even purchased a cow so that he’s not dependent on market manure. As for the harvest, he got nearly 45 quintals of toor dal (pigeon pea) from two acre last season.

While most of what these farmers grow is for personal consumption, some have graduated to commercially selling their produce. Chennai’s Parthasarathy V.M., 37, who has been farming for over a decade, sells his produce from a makeshift store in his house and at farmer markets. An associate general manager at IT services and consulting company, who recently put in his papers to focus on farming full time, took farming as a vocation due to concern over heavy pesticides used in vegetables. The frequent road trips within Tamil Nadu he and his wife, a former TCS employee, took where they sampled organic produce, cemented this intention. “I had become a picky eater," recalls Parthasarathy. So, in 2008, he started experimenting with the three-acre family land in Pandeswaram village, 90 minutes away from Chennai. The first crop he grew was banana. He divided the land and grew five batches, each having 300 saplings. Three batches were exposed to fertilizers and pesticides, and two grown were organically. “The organic batch hardly grew because the soil had leftover chemicals, and the few bananas we got tasted lovely. The batch that was given chemicals did excellently well, but we cut buried everything in a dry well because we knew how much pesticide we had sprayed on them," he says.

He gave up the land as half of it was unfit for further organic cultivation and took a half-acre patch again from his family farm land the next year to grow 20 varieties of organic leafy vegetables. With enough for personal consumption, Parthasarathy decided to sell the surplus stock at Chennai’s Marina beach. But he realized people weren’t willing to pay the higher mark-up cost he was charging even if the vegetables were organically grown.

So, he switched to native paddy by taking an additional two acres from his family in 2010. He now grows vegetables for personal use and over eight varieties of native rice since they are “commercially viable" in 28 acres of family land; 70-odd acre in his village is used for organic farming.

Shashi Chandra has been growing vegetables in a 600 sq.ft plot in Bengaluru since 2017.
Shashi Chandra has been growing vegetables in a 600 sq.ft plot in Bengaluru since 2017.

Juggling work and farm

Parthasarathy and Deenadayalan chose native paddy as it’s a hardy crop and so, easy to manage while balancing farm and work lives. In paddy cultivation, most effort goes into sowing, transplanting and harvesting, after 150 days.

“Vegetables are sensitive crop and need constant attention. During the first season, we planted seven varieties of country vegetables but didn’t get as much yield as expected. Since I have a job, it was becoming tedious," says Deenadayalan, who has roped in a group of his friends to help at the farm. If he skips a weekend visit, one of the friends makes a trip.

“I have a team of three, who help at the farm. This gave me a lot of space to focus on my work. I enjoy my corporate work. In case there is pending work to be finished on weekends, I go early morning to the farm," says Parthasarathy, who spends 15,000-20,000 per month on the farm.

Basavaraju, meanwhile, ensures he wraps up his work by Friday. “If some last-minute work comes up, I carry my laptop to the farm. I have Wi-Fi connection there," says Basavaraju, who, on an average, spends 6,000 a month on the farm.

For Shashi Chandra, the weekend travel to farm is also no trouble. “When you are passionate about something, you will make time. I arrange my work accordingly," says Chandra. He monthly shells out 3000, which includes the farm rent.

Farming has been transformative for Deenadayalan, who shells out 3,000 a month. It’s all worth it because “it gives me peace", he says.

Farmizen’s Chakravarty cautions that farming is not everyone’s cup of tea. “Several people live in this fantasy that they will do part-time farming and make money. The fact is that most part-time farmers barely break even. I have seen people get into the mode of buying land, getting into farming. The first year is always tough. When they see that they have lost or are continuing to lose money, they give up," he says.

Chandra, too, faced his share of problems in the beginning, but he didn’t give up. Experimenting with seeds and different methods, he didn’t get any harvest for a few months. “It taught me not to worry about failure; put your effort and don’t worry about results. I also started valuing time."

To ensure things run on time, Basavaraju notes down his observations, like which saplings to plant and seasonal changes, on a digital diary app. “Farming is all about data."

The biggest change farming has brought in Parthasarathy’s life is in his attitude towards consumption. “Farming teaches you to be mindful about your consumption. For instance, we have gone many years without buying new clothes. The things we used to worry about has changed; life is much more simplified now."

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